The Lesson of the Saga at Glamis
Often I ask four wheel drive enthusiasts why they are not more involved in land use issues. Land use, management, and policy would seem to be fundamental concerns for us as one of the primary user groups on public lands. Several answers are given to my question but the most often cited one is that getting directly involved in trying to keep access to public lands available to four wheelers is hopeless. The greens always win. Closed trails are never reopened. Because the perception is that getting involved will make no difference, apathy and shrugged shoulders becomes the extent of the "fight" in many off roaders.
I can understand where the feeling of hopelessness originates. Environmental groups have evolved from a small number of noisy grassroots do-gooders into slick corporate entities and political machines. These groups are now very effective at lobbying legislators and using the court system to gain their ends. They have mastered the glossy brochure public relations campaign and, to the untutored masses being asked to send in their $25, the message is easily understood. After all, who is not, on a broad superficial level, interested in protection of the environment? So, the environmental groups have the ear of many Democratic legislators, are very effective in manipulating the courts, and are able to raise lots of money. But, still, I would suggest that the environmental groups are not unbeatable.
Has anyone been paying attention to the recent developments at Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area (ISDRA)? The dunes, located just across the CA state line from Yuma AZ and known commonly as "Glamis", is, at 1.4 million annual visits, the most often visited off road area in the country. A few years ago ISDRA was the subject (among other things) of a lawsuit filed by the Center For Biological Diversity-a radical environmental group based in Tucson. The issue was the viability of Peirson's Milk Vetch, a "threatened" plant that lives in the dunes. CBD asserted that off road vehicle use in the dunes was adversely affecting the plants and that the management agency (BLM) had to intercede with restrictions on vehicle use in an effort to protect the plant.
In 2001 BLM responded, under court order, with an immediate "temporary closure" of much of the ISDRA pending the outcome of the necessary studies and adoption of a new Recreation Area Management Plan (RAMP). The biological studies were undertaken and the NEPA process begun with respect to the new RAMP. The NEPA process incorporates public comment periods and public meetings. A number of meetings were held around southern California and Arizona. Some JA'ers attended the local San Diego meeting and, by an admittedly rough count, the majority of attendees were in support of vehicle access in the dunes and reopening the closures. Conversation with folks who attended meetings in different locations indicated that this was the case at most, if not all, of the meetings. Much of the credit for such a high turnout by the off roading community must be given to the American Sand Association, a duners group, which made a big effort to get its members to attend the BLM meetings. Still, while there was a decidedly pro-off roader feeling at the meetings, the JA'ers who walked out of the San Diego meeting were left really wondering if the show of support for vehicle use in the dunes would make any difference.
Fast-forward many months to late May, 2003. The final RAMP was just released by the BLM. Does it make the "temporary closures" permanent as some suggested that it might? To the contrary, it reopens 49,300 acres, a majority of the area that had been closed. It concedes the economic benefits, thought to be up to $15M annually, that accrue to local businesses from off roaders coming to the dunes. It recognizes, through a "no jeopardy" Biological Opinion issued by US Fish and Wildlife, that much of the science surrounding the previous milk vetch studies was flawed.
The most significant changes between the pre-existing management plan and the new one is that law enforcement presence will be increased to keep down the rowdy parties (raves) where violence and drunkenness had resulted in several fatalities. These parties had become so synonymous with holiday weekends at Glamis that many families were discouraged from visiting the dunes during those periods. At public meetings and in the official records it was repeatedly noted that the majority of troublemakers at the dunes were not off roaders but people who came to the dunes looking only for trouble. Off roaders were wholly in support of the increased law enforcement requested by BLM.
Did off roaders get everything they wanted? No, not everything. The largest issue for off road enthusiast groups in the new RAMP is that in the 33,000 acre "central closure" there will be a quota system and limits on vehicle use put in place. This area, also known as the Adaptive Management Area (AMA), will have a 525 vehicle daily cap and will be closed from dusk to dawn. Some off road groups have vowed to protest the creation of the AMA and the limits imposed but the hard reality is that FWS would not likely have issued the "no jeopardy" Biological Opinion, thus allowing BLM to reopen most of the closed areas, without it.
So, for the duners the new plan is not perfect. However, given the very real possibility that the updated RAMP might have called for the 2001 temporary closures to become permanent, the new plan has to be viewed as a victory for vehicle use in the dunes. Perhaps no evidence of this is more telling than that the Center For Biological Diversity has stated that it will not even wait for the 30 day (post Record of Decision) administrative period to expire before it files suit to oppose implementation of the new plan.
How did off roaders secure this victory? Much was made in the early days of the Bush Administration, pre 9/11, of a new policy paradigm with respect to public land management. Bush did appoint Gale Norton as Secretary of Interior and she came from the pro-access, pro-business Mountain States Legal Foundation. But would the replacement of management at the top of the Interior hierarchy really affect change amongst the many public land managers in the field, the majority of them having come to the Federal agencies during the Clinton/Gore "pro-environment" years? Possibly. I don't think one can entirely discount the changed focus of Interior under the Bush Administration. However, I argue that the direct and continued involvement of off road vehicle enthusiasts in the entire ISDRA process was the key.
The original litigants in the suit against the BLM (Center For Biological Diversity, Public Employees For Environmental Responsibility, and the Sierra Club) have not been inclined to work directly with the land management agencies. Their primary tactic is to bring suit against the agencies in court. Utilizing the Endangered Species Act as the legal underpinning this has been quite successful for the environmental groups. At the same time it has created an ongoing confrontational situation with land managers and this has diminished, over time, these groups effectiveness. In contrast, off road enthusiast groups have made greater efforts to be part of the process and, at least in the case at ISDRA, this appears to have reaped some benefit in terms of a more pro-offroader outcome than was otherwise likely.
So what is the lesson for off road enthusiasts? Get involved in local public land access issues in the area where you use public lands. Pay attention to what is going on. Know what reviews, studies, environmental impact processes, are being conducted and make your position known at public meetings and through writing letters to your local land managers. Work directly with land managers wherever possible to influence the outcome of any decision-making. Utilize confrontation and legal action only as an avenue of last resort.
These efforts won't always be successful. Some causes will be lost anyway. In many cases the outcome won't be entirely favorable to vehicle users--but this is also the nature of compromise. Still, as in Glamis, sometimes you can win. (Or at least get most of what you sought). Shrugging your shoulders will lose every time.